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Exhibiting Democracy


Exhibiting Democracy: Material Culture from Ancient Athens and the Democratic Ideal

2,500 Years: Blockbuster Exhibition - The Context

Museum Heritage Debates

Democracy Celebrated and Debated

Two Exhibitions:

The Art Blockbuster: The Greek Miracle.

Archaeology and Text: An Exhibition Celebrating the 2500th Anniversary of Democracy


Exhibiting Democracy: Critical Conclusions


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Exhibiting Democracy: Summary and Critical Conclusions

What is very obvious from an an overview of the events, whether publications, conference or exhibitions, celebrating the democratic reforms of Kleisthenes in Athens is that the American political system and ideas of freedom dominated the agenda in the early 1990s. This is not surprising given that most of the celebratory events were backed by American organisations and took place in America. Neither is it surprising given that the Americans were adjusting to being the only remaining global super power and had recently celebrated two hundred years of independence and representative government. However, it does beg the question whether if it took place now [2008] would it be very different? The word and concept of ‘freedom' has been given a different edge in America due to the way it has been articulated in rhetoric around the ‘war on terror' since 2001 and regime change has become synonymous with enforced democracy. What is clear is that the two exhibitions, The Greek Miracle and The Birth of Democracy, were held to encourage a broader public than academics gathered together at conferences to take part in the celebration of Athenian democracy, and by extension American democracy. Full public engagement programmes have been mentioned in connection with both exhibitions and it would be useful to find out more about those and, if possible, what numbers and kinds of visitors they attracted. Some of the conclusions and comment on the exhibitions use ‘appeared' and ‘perhaps' more readily as there is a recognition that the archives of the relevant institutions would have more evidence on these issues.

The Greek Miracle

The Greek Miracle was considered a blockbuster exhibition. The attack by Michael Kimmelman on ‘the power of the National Gallery and the Metropolitan to act like big game trophy hunters, mounting on their walls the bounty of over nations' in his review of the exhibition for The New York Times was also an attack on the blockbuster tradition in large art museums (Kimmelman, 1992). A blockbuster exhibition generally means a popular subject, large visitor numbers, an impressive looking exhibition and substantial corporate sponsorship. The Greek Miracle fulfilled these criteria. The reviews of The Greek Miracle in The New York Times and by Robert Hughes in Time magazine were critical and hostile, considering the exhibition to be of little value intellectually. These responses have been considered as ‘revisionist' under the heading of ‘new museology' by Lynn Munson, who quotes J. Carter Brown's (the former Director of the National Gallery) response to Hughes' comment that the exhibition was ‘an exercise in political propaganda':

We do share some universal values - the rule of law, the ideal of justice - which came to us from the Greeks.... It would be a great loss to this country if everyone just took whatever piece of world culture they felt they could identify with most closely and abjured everything else. (Munson 1997)

Lynn Munson argues that 'The Greek Miracle is the firmest statement any major museum has made to date in support of high aesthetic standards and historical truth' and suggests that ‘a serious debate needs to take place - of the sort that emerged in academia over political correctness - over the state of museums.' Munson clearly has a political view point in this analysis and her comments illustrate how devisive the exhibition was for cultural commentators, as well as how these divisions were linked to the perceptions of ‘politically correct culture wars' taking place on university campuses at roughly the same time.

Francis Haskell, by no means a ‘revisionist' in Munson's definition of the term, gives an interesting and thorough account of the rise of the art exhibition in his last book The Ephemeral Museum. Haskell looks at the history of exhibiting art in a popular manner from the late eighteenth century until today and considers the ‘blockbuster' to be a troubling phenomenon that causes risk to art objects and misunderstanding among both the academic community and the broader public. One of his comments is of particular relevance here:

The ephemeral presentation in London, Paris or New York of exotic, and sometimes only recently excavated, sculptures – whose permanent sequestration in the museums of these and other western cities would not be possible today – can radically change our perception of even the most renowned orthodoxies; national glory can be propagated, and political causes can be promoted, by judicious displays in well-chosen exhibition galleries [...] (Haskell 2000:3)

Haskell is of course referring to art exhibitions more generally, but his stress on ‘political causes' and ‘national glory' reflects that of many reviewers of The Greek Miracle. Haskell continues to point out that exhibition catalogues of such shows are by necessity incomplete in their analysis of the subject as they have to confine themselves to what has been chosen or what is able to be displayed. The catalogue of The Greek Miracle arguably illustrated Haskell's points.

Reviewers of The Greek Miracle commented that the exhibition was lacking in contemporary and interesting scholarship, but what exactly where they referring to? The Greek Miracle drew on the handbook formalism of Gisela Richter that she developed through ‘morphological analysis of anatomy, drapery and composition' in the 1930s to 1960s (as recognised by reviewers such as Theodorou in Minerva). It also emphasised the importance of high-quality originals from fifth-century Greece, thus drawing on the different formalism of Rhys Carpenter in roughly the same period (Stewart 1990:31). The academic J. J. Pollitt was evidently known and involved in the exhibition – at least to the extent of his catalogue entry – and his emphasis on political development as parallel to artistic development in classical Athens was one of the overarching motifs of the exhibition:

What was needed to make all these forces [behind an atmosphere of self-belief] effective and reap their fruit was a will to believe and spokesmen to articulate that will. The Great Believers and also the spokesmen were Pericles the son of Xanthippos and the artists like Pheidias and Sophocles who helped to make the Periclean vision real by giving it witnessable form. (Pollitt 1972:64)

Arguably, though, there was limited use of his work since Pollitt himself stressed the importance of vases and forms of Greek art besides sculpture. The development of the Archaic Kouros to the Kritios Boy stressed by Andrew Stewart was evidently used in the interpretation of the exhibition. Otherwise there is remarkably little use of Stewart's 1990 book Greek Sculpture and his emphasis on considering ‘the sculptor's world', including patronage, function of art (religious, political and personal) and the working conditions of artists. In fact Stewart's book is not mentioned in the bibliography of the catalogue, while the earlier work of Richter, Carpenter, John Boardman and Brunilde Ridgway are consistently referred to. This in itself is not necessarily a problem – John Boardman's Thames and Hudson readers on Greek art are classic texts on the history of art – but it does signify a gap between contemporary scholarship and the academic knowledge presented in the exhibition.

The Greek Miracle displayed a lack of contemporary scholarship in a number of important ways. There was no self-consciousness about the image they were projecting, which could have been informed by' 1991 essay or the exhibition put on by Beard and Henderson at the Ashmolean in 1992. Stewart's Greek Sculpture positioned Athenian art within the context of whole Greek world and considered the environment that the artists worked in. The Greek Miracle displayed objects from Athens alongside art works created for patrons external to Athens from within the same period and did not appear to look for differences in cultural context or development. The use of art by Athens for its own propagandic purposes was touched on but not evaluated – an instance where Nicole Loraux's The Invention of Athens (1986) might have been useful. There was no analysis of the social rituals within Athens itself. This does not just mean religious rituals but also social rites, such as erotic courtship and physical ideals. For example, there was no acknowledgment that the Kritios Boy could function as an erotic image or had a warlike significance as representing the potential citizen (and warrior) body of Athens. The work of Michel Foucault or Kenneth Dover on eroticism and homosexuality was noticeable by its absence. The significance of gender and its construction was similarly absent in the catalogue and there was nothing about the position of women, whether citizens or not, in the essays. The Hegeso Stele and the depiction of the young woman and slave girl would have been an obvious place to discuss the position and the role of women and slavery in Athens. There was also little reference to Athenian slavery, the empire of Athens and foreign migrants within the city state. Above all there was no discussion about democracy itself, ancient or modern, which was what taxed most scholarly debates that took place in 1992 to 1994.

Reviewers of The Greek Miracle were critical of its lack of reference to contemporary scholarship, in both its analysis of Athens and Athenian democracy, and its presentation of the story of Greek art. Another area of scholarship that appeared to be disregarded in both The Greek Miracle and The Birth of Democracy was the emerging subject of museums studies. The study of museums, galleries and other public spaces displaying art or historical objects known as museology or museum studies was a fairly new area in scholarship. An important collection of essays on exhibiting objects in museums and the significance for the cultures on display is Ivan Karp's and Steven D. Lavine's Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display which was published in 1991. Svetlana Alpers' essay ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing' in this volume considers how the function of objects is changed by placing them in a museum and how that changes how visitors then ‘see' objects. Alpers considers a Greek statue ‘removed from its sanctuary or stadium, eyes gone, color worn to an overall pallor. The museum effect – turning all objects into works of art – operates here too.' She points out that there has been a growing and heated debate over how the material culture of indigenous communities has been displayed in museums, but the museum effect of looking at Greek sculpture in a certain way has become subsumed into western cultural traditions (Alpers 1991:26-7). These western cultural traditions were redisplayed in The Greek Miracle as the exhibition had (from the research carried out so far) little information about the function of Greek art in archaeological or religious contexts. Neither did the exhibition question the idea of showing Greek sculpture as art works but rather capitalised on it.

Alternative Approaches

The Cambridge academics Mary Beard and John Henderson curated an exhibition called The Curator's Egg at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (December 1991 – May 1992), which scrutinised the role of the museum and the way it makes meaning. Arguing that museums make and increase the value of objects financially as well as aesthetically, a vase by a well-known Greek painter was exhibited and valued at £100,000 alongside a pot by an unknown artist valued at £200, this was a very different to the traditional art historical readings of Greek sculpture and their relation to democracy in The Greek Miracle (Pearce 1995:392). In their 1992 book Reconstructing Archaeology, archaeologists Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley considered the way in which museums transform ‘artefacts into objects in commodified time' and the different ways in which archaeological artefacts are presented. The mode of presentation used in The Greek Miracle, according to the principles laid out by Shanks and Tilley, was the ‘Aesthetic artefact' which ‘conveys the timeless ability of Man as toolmaker artist' with ‘universal truth (Shanks and Tilley 1992:73). This kind of presentation displays archaeological objects in a dislocated way, removing them from their material and cultural context and presenting them simply as ‘art'. However, Greek material culture and sculpture has a purpose in western artistic traditions and that tradition needs to be recognised as well as the archaeological function of ‘artefacts'.

Soon after The Greek Miracle, Alan Wallach critically examined the historical and political ideology at play in an exhibition The West as America. Wallach introduced his topic with a broader consideration of how an exhibition of classical Greek sculpture could be displayed not as ‘masterpieces' or grouping around a familiar theme but in a way that ‘attempted to reveal the works under consideration as ideological'. Wallach considers that practical difficulties would probably make this task difficult due to the amount of written information needed:

Moreover, the type of historical criticism that now routinely occurs in academic settings would very likely encounter grave difficulties in a museum. For example puncturing the myth of Athenian democracy would no doubt arouse the ire of a public – or at least its self appointed representatives in the press – habituated to celebrations of ‘the Greek Miracle'. (Wallach 1998:106)

Yet, as we have seen reviews of The Greek Miracle in the press were far from being uncritical or accepting of the generalised celebrations of Athenian democracy. Perhaps more important would be fears that mounting an exhibition in a public museum that made a generally accepted ideology more problematic would probably damage chances of corporate sponsorship.

Alternative Readings

Recently Jeremy Tanner has traced the way in which the Hellenist paradigm of art history based on Winckelmann has framed the way Greek art has been presented to the ‘broader public' in The Greek Miracle, which:

[...] provided a vehicle for both the Greek and the American states to project themselves through the classical ideal in a manner analogous to the use of classical art by European states of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in national museums. (Tanner 2006:13)

Tanner also drew attention to the preface by the Greek and American presidents as using the exhibition and Greek art to project their two countries as ‘nurturing democratic systems'. Rather than this ‘birth of art' and development of naturalism in art, Tanner calls for a sociological reading of the role of art objects in the use of rites and whether these objects illustrated social change. In this, Tanner echoes Robin Osbourne's stress on placing Greek art within the context of its social role rather than simply its political history (Osborne, 1996:20). In his popular book in the Oxford History of Art series, published in 1998, Osbourne emphasised the importance of religious activity in the development and role of Greek art, as many of the reviewers of The Greek Miracle also stressed. The problem is less the amount of information given to the ‘broader public' (as long as it is delivered in a concise and clear manner), but more how such an exhibition could be sponsored and whether there is the motivation within the museum and academic world to create such an exhibition. An exhibition that is more representative of different debates, as well as being self-conscious about its own ‘way of seeing'.

Interactions: exhibitions, scholarship and ideology

The exhibition The Birth of Democracy was a more obviously scholarly exhibition. It was not a ‘blockbuster' and did not attract huge media coverage and was more supported by contemporary scholarship. The Birth of Democracy was linked to a major conference on ‘Demokratia' in Spring 1993, shortly after the exhibition itself opened, and a conference on the archaeology of Athens in December 1992. The conferences and the exhibition were part of the ‘Democracy 2,500' project, co-ordinated by Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick. These co-ordinators and the curators of the exhibition, Diana Buitron-Oliver and John McK. Camp II, were experienced academics open to debates and wide consideration of the function of democracy in Athens. The conference papers were published in 1996. Demokratia: A conversation on democracy, ancient and modern included different views on the ‘birth' of democracy, including an essay by Ian Morris that pushed the roots of Athenian democracy back to huge changes that took place in Greek society in the eighth century and the subsequent collapse of elitist ideology in the sixth century (Morris 1996:19-48). A number of essays thoroughly explored connections and differences between Athenian and American democracy. For example, Martin Ostwald considered the meaning of citizenship ‘Greek style and American style' arguing that Athenian citizenship was ‘communal' while American citizenship is ‘individualistic'; while Robert W. Wallace considered the interaction of the law, freedom and rights and contended that, among other issues, Athens had few restrictions on personal freedoms and so ‘his personal freedoms were greater than those of US citizens' (Ostwald 1996:49-61 and Wallace 1996: 105-19). A number of essays also explored key conceptual terms and their meanings that were relevant to Athenian democracy and modern democracy. For example Kurt A. Raaflaub considers what was meant by ‘democratic equality' in Athens through exploring terms linked to isonomia, equality before the law, and isegoria, equality of speech (Raaflaub 1996: 139-74). Paul Cartledge in part responded to Raaflaub's paper by looking at the same terms and compared them to modern definitions of the word before looking at what was going on in Greece aside from Athens (Cartledge 1996:175-85). Other essays explored the social and cultural world of Athens, including the triremes, the theatre and education. The final essay by Philip Brook Manville argued that knowledge-based business organisations not only could learn from Athenian democracy in their decision making processes, but actually already functioned in that way through people's greater desire for democracy in the workplace (Brook Manville 1996:377-99). In this way democracy is reliant on economic structures rather than political ones. From Ober's introductory remarks, it appears that this caused a great deal of comment and Ober and Manville later published a book together on Business theory and Athenian democracy in 2003 (Ober and Brook Manville 2003). This connection between business models and Athenian democracy would appear to further support the ideological intertwining of democracy and capitalism in the modern world that fed the celebrations of democracy in the early 1990s.

Some of the same scholars who participated in Demokratia: A conversation on democracy, ancient and modern later took part in Democracy 2500? Questions and Challenges, which was held at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC in September 1993. This conference was jointly organised by Ian Morris and Karl A. Raaflaub and appeared to be a reaction to The Birth of Democracy exhibition and other celebratory commemorations. Morris and Raaflaub held the conference due to four concerns: 1. the interpretations of Kleisthenes and 508/7 BCE were formed purely by contemporary concerns but that this was not recognised; 2. being consciously present-minded can lead to new insights; 3. recent debates in Classics, such as the Black Athena debate led by Martin Bernal, have illustrated that there are dangers with the glowing mythologizing of Greece; 4. the range of scholars involved as been too restrictive and there needs to be interdisciplinary debate (Morris and Raaflaub 1998:4). The group involved in Democracy 2500? met again in December 1993 to refine their points and exchange ideas and the as a result the collection of papers is ‘more argumentative than what classicists usually publish'. (ibid.:5). Morris and Raaflaub had themselves spoken at the conference linked to The Birth of Democracy exhibition and Josiah Ober and Barry S. Strauss who both spoke at the earlier conference took part in Democracy 2500?. There was therefore an interchange of ideas between these different forums. What marked Morris and Raaflaub's conference and subsequent publication as different was their deliberate disavowal of celebratory talk around democracy, ancient or modern.


The Greek Miracle was an example of an art blockbuster, albeit one with enormous political significance. The exhibition may have attracted mixed and, even, hostile reviews but it appeared to be popular with the public. The reviews suggest that at best it was an over confident statement that was good to look at, at worst it was triumphalist propaganda with nothing new to say. The Greek Miracle was symbolic of an international diplomatic union between modern Greece and America as well as an ideological union between ancient Athens and America. Slated as unscholarly and an uncritical celebration of democracy yet aesthetically handsome, The Greek Miracle at least attracted public comment and there has not been another exhibition like it. The Birth of Democracy was more scholarly, more low-key, and did not have the same impact. It pleased an emphasis on the function of democracy and democratic practice rather than the aesthetics of Athenian art. More importantly, it also acknowledged different debates and groups traditionally marginalised in histories of Athenian democracy – slaves and women for example – while still celebrating the ancient Athenians as democratic predecessors to America. Added to this was the message that the function of law and the recording of laws and decisions are crucial to function of archives. Both these exhibitions, directly and indirectly, played a part in academic debates on democracy, as well as the role of museum exhibitions, that took place throughout the year of the anniversary and beyond.


Alpers, S. 1991. ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing' in Karp and Lavine (eds), 1991:25-32.

Brook Manville, P. 1996. ‘Ancient Greek Democracy and the Modern Knowledge-Based Organization: Reflections on the Ideology of Two Revolutions', in Ober and Hedrick (eds.), 1996:377-99.

Cartledge, P. 1996. ‘Comparatively Equal', in Ober and Hedrick (eds) 1996: 175-85.

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